The Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) is one of the earliest emerging solitary bees. By the end of February and into early March the male of the species climbs out of his egg chamber and into the sunlight.
In bee world it is one of the species that heralds the start of spring, emerging when the early spring flowers are starting to blossom. Perfect timing for it needs these plants to sustain it through its breeding season.
It’s a type of solitary bee, a mining bee that nests in walls. It has a few favourite plants that it visits for food, one of which is the early flowering lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) where it can be found flitting very fast from flower to flower as it feeds.
Solitary bees make up around 90% of the wild, native UK bee species and there are around 250 of them. Unlike bumblebees or honeybees these are the single mothers of the bee world, the indie bees, that leave the mated females to do all the work.
If you live in the southern half of the UK there’s a good chance you will see this bee in your garden, especially in gardens with a rich diversity of spring flowers planted in abundance.
It’s an accomplished aerial acrobat and skilled at hovering, resembling a little hummingbird as it flies. It is pretty difficult to photograph because it moves so fast, but that actually helps in identification of this species.
Once mated the female returns to her nest where she has made little cells for her offspring. She lays an egg into each cell and provisions it with a ball of pollen, sometimes wetted with nectar. Then she seals the cell. Inside, the egg will hatch into a larva that will eat the pollen and then pupate in the cell to emerge in spring to start the cycle over again.
Like most solitary bees the males emerge first so that they are ready for the arrival of the females. The males hang around the food plants of choice for this species, waiting for the female and seeing off competition. This behaviour is often seen around established clumps of lungwort.
The garden at RHS Wisley in Surrey has an aggregation of Hairy-footed flower bees that have nested in a cobb wall on site. The entomologists have created an information board to introduce the visitors to this enigmatic bee. It’s a great way to spread the word about solitary bees to the very gardeners that may come across them in their plots.
How to spot
- Look out for nest sites in the mortar between the bricks in walls and soil banks. As the weather starts to warm in early spring it is the males that emerge first. They can get quite excited visiting the nest sites where the females are yet to emerge and can be spotted flying into the nests looking for a mate.
- The best way to see these bees is to stake out the early spring flowers of lungwort (pulmonaria) on the lookout for fast moving, hovering bees, remembering that the black ones are the females and the gingery, feathery legged ones are the males. Start looking in early March when the plants are in flower, but in milder spells they can emerge in February. These bees will also visit other early spring flowers such as comfrey, primroses and dead nettles: all nectar rich blooms and common garden plants.
How to help
- If you’ve spotted this bee in your garden then submit a report to BWARS so that it can be added to the research on this species. This is especially important as the parameters of the distribution of this bee are still unclear and it is unknown in some areas of the northern UK, Scotland and Ireland.
- Plant pulmonarias around your garden; it’s a pretty groundcover plant and will help all manner of bees, but is a favourite of this species in particular. Divide established clumps and pot them up for friends and family so that more people grow it.
- Let white, red and spotted dead nettles grow in the wilder parts of your garden.
- If you only have pots and containers on a patio or terrace then plant spring primroses and primulas, seeking out those grown organically and without the addition of pesticides. Grow them in a sunny spot.
- If you have a grassy bank, plant wild primroses to flower in the spring for an early source of nectar.
- Leave old cobb walls and any soft mortar joints between bricks and stones in walls.
- If you see them nesting there leave them alone to complete their lifecycle. You can also make small blocks or bricks of cobb (clay or soil mixed with grit and straw) and create new habitat as part of an insect house or wildlife shelter.
- Leave an area of soil, especially on a bank, as bare soil. If it’s a sunny south-facing grassy bank then cut it tight to expose the soil and leave it for the bees to nest. You may not attract Hairy-footed flower bees to nest there, but it’s a good habitat for all sorts of other creatures too.